Infidelity, Love, and the New Shame

Just dove into Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg’s Modern Romance, and have to say, it’s pretty […]

David Zahl / 7.7.15

Just dove into Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg’s Modern Romance, and have to say, it’s pretty great. Funny yet with a surprising amount of meat on its bones. As mentioned the other day, the book’s primary interest lies in exploring 1. the unspoken cultural imperative to find a ‘soul mate’ and 2. the resulting anxiety, frustration, and confusion that characterizes modern romance. I was particularly struck by how the word ‘soul mate’ has come to serve as a synonym for savior. A weight it clearly cannot bear:

Searching for a soul mate takes a long time and requires enormous emotional investment. The problem is that this search for the perfect person can generate a lot of stress. Younger generations face immense pressure to find the “perfect person” that simply didn’t exist in the past when “good enough” was good enough.

The psychotherapist Esther Perel has counseled hundreds of couples who are having trouble in their marriages, and as she sees things, asking all of this from a marriage puts a lot of pressure on relationships. In her words:

Marriage was an economic institution in which you were given a partnership for life in terms of children and social status and succession and companionship. But now we want our partner to still give us all these things, but in addition, I want you to be my best friend and my trusted confidant and my passionate lover to boot, and we live twice as long. So we come to one person, and we basically are asking them to give us what once an entire village used to provide: Give me belonging, give me identity, give me continuity, but give me transcendence and mystery and awe all in one. Give me comfort, give me edge. Give me novelty, give me familiarity. Give me predictability, give me surprise.

That quote comes from a TED talk that Dr. Perel gave back in 2013, “The Secret to Desire in a Long-Term Relationship”–and woah. Talk about vaunted expectations! Sub out “an entire village” in the middle of the paragraph for “God” and the direction of contemporary worship becomes plain. Ironically enough, one could hardly find a more ‘religious’ definition of marriage than the supposedly secular one that Perel describes. It is salvation, pure and simple, a la “you complete me”. Alas, there is no law more crushing than the law of love, no more reliable predictor of discontent and confusion either, especially when the conception of love in question is so thoroughly bound up in self-fulfillment rather than, say, self-divestment.

Earlier this year, Dr. Perel gave a second TED talk on “Rethinking Infidelity”, which explored how the ‘soul mate’ mandate has changed the way we perceive and experience infidelity. (Ethan touched on this last year when he wrote about an interview with Perel). I’ve embedded the video below, but a few choice quotes:

We have a romantic ideal in which we turn to one person to fulfill an endless list of needs: to be my greatest lover, my best friend, the best parent, my trusted confidant, my emotional companion, my intellectual equal. And I am it: I’m chosen, I’m unique, I’m indispensable, I’m irreplaceable, I’m the one. And infidelity tells me I’m not. It is the ultimate betrayal. Infidelity shatters the grand ambition of love. But if throughout history, infidelity has always been painful, today it is often traumatic, because it threatens our sense of self…

Because of this romantic ideal, we are relying on our partner’s fidelity with a unique fervor. But we also have never been more inclined to stray, and not because we have new desires today, but because we live in an era where we feel that we are entitled to pursue our desires, because this is the culture where I deserve to be happy. And if we used to divorce because we were unhappy, today we divorce because we could be happier. And if divorce carried all the shame, today, choosing to stay when you can leave is the new shame. So Heather, she can’t talk to her friends because she’s afraid that they will judge her for still loving Nick, and everywhere she turns, she gets the same advice: Leave him. Throw the dog on the curb. And if the situation were reversed, Nick would be in the same situation. Staying is the new shame.

Back to Aziz a few chapters later, where he picks up a few of these threads:

“At certain times, this “I need the best” mentality can be debilitating. I wish I could just eat somewhere that looks good and be happy with my choice. But I can’t. The problem is that I know somewhere there is a perfect meal for me and I have to do however much research I can to find it.

That’s the thing about the Internet: It doesn’t simply help us find the best thing out there; it has helped to produce the idea that there is a best thing and, if we search hard enough, we can find it. And in turn there are a whole bunch of inferior things that we’d be foolish to choose…

detail.2691cd8eWe live in a culture that tells us we want and deserve the best, and now we have the technology to get it. Think about the overwhelming popularity of websites that are dedicated to our pursuit of the best things available. Yelp for restaurants. TripAdvisor for travel. Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic for movies.

A few decades ago, if I wanted to research vanilla ice cream, what would I have done? Cold-approach chubby guys and then slowly steer the convo toward ice cream to get their take? No, thanks. Nowadays the Internet is my chubby friend. It is the whole world’s chubby friend.”

Long story short, when entitlement (high anthropology) turns blessings into expectations, the result is anxiety and paralysis. Moreover, pursuing love in such a highly pressurized way seems to preclude it being found–at least the kind of love that can handle shortcoming and sin, i.e. another human being.

Probably goes without saying, but the Bible paints a different picture. It assumes from the outset that we are all severely handicapped in our ability to love one another, and that we stand a better chance of loving our neighbor (or spouse) when we aren’t looking to them to do or be what they cannot do or be. Christian hope lies in not having to generate love on our own steam but in prior belovedness, expressed in sacrificial terms and in spite of undeserving. This kind of love, which is by definition divine, seeks out the unlovable and finds before it is found. It satisfies rather than introduces expectations. I realize that may sound a little pious or abstract–perhaps that’s why we call it “hope.”

One of the most tweetable moments in our new Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints) book is the couplet, “The Law commands that we love perfectly. The Gospel announces that we are perfectly loved.” In light of Aziz and Esther’s diagnosis, I wonder if the de-capitalized, horizontal version might go like this: “The law commands that we be perfectly loved. Grace announces that we already are.” While we’re at it, why not end with a paragraph from the Love section of that book, which paints the contrast more colorfully:

God’s love is typified by foolish perseverance. It stands in direct contradiction to the common sense of a prudish business model. God’s love doesn’t invest a little love in the hope that you grow it into something bigger—if that were the case, you would be conditionally covered, and conditionally dropped. It risks the farm, leaves everything on the table. In fact, unconditional love doesn’t think about how much it is investing—anything less than everything is too little—or about how much it might get in return. That’s irrelevant to why it went into the business in the first place. Love gives everything because it gives everything. It dies to itself out of a desire to see the other live. Unconditional love cannot be snuffed out because it has already snuffed itself out on your behalf.